The tea kettle began to whistle, it’s high-pitched steamy hiss making Lucy wince. She was in charge tonight. She was the one to hold forth, to represent all young women everywhere, as the Widows’ Book Club met again. She wondered if they would find it amusing or impertinent, maybe even juvenile, calling their book club The Widows’ Book Club. But they were all widows, she argued with herself. Well, three of them.
Lucy steeped the loose Earl Grey tea in the odd teapot that Mary had bought at a garage sale. It was made in England and had a forest with hunting dogs in pursuit of a fox painted on it. It was part of a set with four matching cups and saucers. Very old lady-like, Lucy thought as she set places for their tea. The widows were still upstairs, each in their respective rooms. She imagined them putting the finishing touches on their hair, like a scene from Downtown Abbey but without the maid. Her hands shook slightly as she laid a plate of petits fours on the table.
The book they were discussing tonight was her suggestion: Miss Mabel’s School for Girls by the indomitable Katie Cross. A young adult novel set in a strange world divided into Networks, where witches abound, raising hell with their spells. The story’s focus is Letum Wood, home to Miss Mabel’s School for Girls where a 16-year-old witch named Bianca Monroe goes presumably to learn the fine art of magic. Lucy was attracted to the story because she liked to read things that took her away from her present life. She identified with Bianca. Although Lucy was orphaned and Bianca still had her parents, both of them suffered the pain of separation. Bianca takes it upon herself, with her father’s support and encouragement, to enroll at Miss Mabel’s School for Girls in order to undo a curse that had been unjustly placed on her maternal lineage. Both her grandmother and mother were suffering. And Bianca would be next if she didn’t stop the curse. Lucy had felt cursed too. Both parents dead, one of a violent death. And then she was the target of her father’s murderer. If it hadn’t been for the widows … .
She followed Bianca’s story to see how one young girl could succeed on her own, against powerful and evil people. But of course Bianca was never truly on her own. She made a few friends at the school—Camilla and Leda—but also a few enemies. Bianca was very good at casting spells but not so good at controlling her tongue. Lucy would have liked Bianca for a friend, someone who spoke “truth to power,” someone whose skirts she could hide behind while justice was done.
The sudden crack and groan of the stairs startled Lucy as the widows came down in a rush of words and laughter. Well, Mary and Maggie were laughing, but, as usual, Melissa was somber. They all said hello again and each one gave Lucy a quick hug even though they had let her into the house only 20 minutes earlier. As they took their seats around the table, Mary continuing her conversation, or monologue, on her latest ideas for stirring up clients for their flagging P.I. business, Lucy studied each one, keeping her eyes low.
Maggie reminded her of Miss Bernadette. The kind, warm, nurturing teacher that Bianca admired, loved, and feared to disappoint. Mary was Miss Scarlett, who at first glance you might think cold and uncaring. But Mary was full of surprises, as was Miss Scarlett. And Melissa. Dear Melissa, Lucy thought. The best she could do was Leda, Bianca’s studious, antisocial, tortured friend. Leda had her own secrets, her own unhappy reasons for being at the school. And while she was indeed very studious, her propensity to study was in part to hide a part of herself. Lucy wondered if Melissa too had something about herself to hide, if that was why she rarely smiled, why she seemed to prefer being alone, at least with her own thoughts if nothing else.
As Lucy started pouring out the tea, she suddenly saw herself in Bianca’s shoes, pouring out tea for Isadora. Her hand jerked and tea splashed into and over Mary’s cup. She felt her cheeks burn as Mary laughed.
“Sit down, Lucy. You’ve done enough here. Let me finish.” Without giving Lucy a chance to respond, Mary took the teapot from her hands and proceeded to fill the remaining cups. Not another drop was spilled.
Maggie put down her knitting, which Lucy would swear was literally attached to Maggie’s hip since she was never without it. She smiled at Lucy.
“So, let’s start. What did you think of the novel, Lucy?”
Lucy flushed red again. She had hoped to prompt one of the widows to begin the discussion, not herself. Her damn nerves threw her off. She bit her lip and decided to try a tepid approach.
“I liked it,” she said as she lifted her teacup and quickly bit into a petit four.
All three widows grinned. Even Melissa.
“So did I,” Melissa said, leaning back in her chair, her thin fingers wrapped like translucent white ribbons around her teacup. “I know I’m much older than you, but I loved novels like this when I was your age. And I still do. When I was younger, I often fantasized about having powers, some way to effect change in my life instead of just letting things happen to me.”
In the abrupt silence that followed, Lucy could hear the drip of a faucet from across the large kitchen. Mary blinked, unsure of what to make of her cousin’s unexpected stream of words. Maggie looked from one to the other and then resolved.
“I enjoyed the writer’s imagination. All those different spells, each one seemed to have its own logic, as if she had found a book of spells. And what a wonderful sense of place. Letum Wood gave me the creeps!” Maggie popped a pink petit four into her mouth and resumed her knitting.
“Oh, I agree,” Mary chimed in, not used to having so much time go by without putting in her two cents. “Cross really knows how to stimulate the senses. The winter scenes made me feel chilly even though it was near 90 degrees here. And have you seen the author’s Pinterest board on the book?”
Lucy nodded. “Oh, yes, I could get lost in those pictures. Like I got lost in the book.” Oops, Lucy thought. Now they would patronize her as so many grown-ups still do, even though she was living on her own and (barely) making her way with her part-time job.
“I got lost, too,” said Melissa. She smiled at Lucy, a thin but warm smile. “My only complaint, though, was that the story seemed to slow a bit at the end, seemed to falter. I liked Bianca very much, but her frequent explications were unnecessary. They slowed the pace. In my humble opinion.” Melissa looked away as she took a delicate sip of her tea.
“I thought so, too,” Mary piped up. “The story was going speedily along and then, in the last few chapters, almost slowed to a halt. I think the author lost the pace somewhere along the way.”
“Well, it’s her first novel.” Six dark eyes set upon Lucy. She had spoken a bit too defensively. “I mean, it is her first novel, the first in a series. She’s hooked me enough to want to read the next one. That’s what counts, right?” Her voice cracked a bit as Lucy tried to choke down a sob. She was still too emotional, too easily upset when people challenged her. The widows meant no harm. She knew they were watching her out of concern and care, not derision.
“Indeed,” said Maggie, her fingers flying over the knitting needles. “It is a strong first novel. Some of our criticisms may be because we’re too … too … old to appreciate the author’s writing style as you do.”
Mary grimaced at Maggie’s suggestion that they were too “old” while Melissa looked away, a smirk stealing over her face.
“Well.” Lucy paused. The age difference was profound, she thought. The widows each were old enough to be her mother. The thought made her smile. From having no mother to having three. Or maybe one and two aunts. Mary was the first to help her, to take her under their wing. Maggie was like the aunt who would teach you to knit and crochet. Melissa, the odd aunt. The black sheep. The one that no one understands but still loves.
“Well, yes, you all might be too old.” Lucy quickly took a deep swallow of tea, the warm liquid flooding her throat with relief as the widows broke out in laughter. All except Melissa who instead gave Lucy the largest smile she had seen yet.
“Let’s look at some pictures.” Melissa grabbed her iPad which she had left on the kitchen counter, flipped it open and all four leaned forward and proceeded to the strange and magic-filled world evoked by Miss Mabel’s Pinterest boards.
Dear Reader, don’t hesitate pick up a copy Katie Cross’s Miss Mabel’s School for Girls, available through these vendors. If not for your reading pleasure, then for the young witch in your life.